Judaism’s Vision for Social Justice
If you seek to understand Judaism’s social vision, look at its anti-poverty legislation:
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted toward your poor brother. Rather be open-handed and freely lend him sufficient for his needs in that which he lacks. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought, “The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your G-d will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deut 15:7-11)
Ostensibly the passage is about the cancellation of debts in the seventh year (shemittah, the year of “release”). The oral tradition, however, extended it to the laws of tzedakah – the word usually translated as “charity” but which also means “distributive justice, equity.” The rabbis interpreted the phrase “sufficient for his needs” to mean the basic requirements of existence, food, clothing, shelter and so on. “That which he lacks” was understood as referring to a person who was previously wealthy but has now become impoverished. He too must be helped to recover his dignity:
It is related about Hillel the Elder that, for a certain poor man who was of good family, he bought a horse to ride on and a slave to run before him. When on one occasion he could not find a slave to run before the man, he himself ran before him. (Ketubot 67b)
The force of this passage lies in the fact that Hillel himself was notoriously poor, yet he gave of his money and time to help a rich man who had lost his money regain his self-respect. This double aspect is evident throughout the laws of tzedakah. On the one hand, they are directed to the brute fact of poverty. No one must be deprived of basic physical necessities. On the other, they address with astonishing sensitivity the psychology of poverty. It demeans, embarrasses, humiliates, shames. Tzedakah, ruled the rabbis, must be given in such a way as to minimize these feelings:
When Rabbi Yannai saw a certain man giving a coin to a poor person in front of everyone, he said, “It would have been better not to have given it to him than to have given it and put him to shame.” (Hagigah 5b)
In a famous passage, Maimonides describes the eight levels of charity:
There are eight degrees of charity, one higher than the other.
The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of one who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word by putting him in a situation where he can dispense with other people’s aid. With reference to such aid it is said, ‘You shall strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you’ (Lev. 25: 35), which means: strengthen him in such a manner that his falling into want is prevented.
A step below this is the one who gives alms to the needy in such a way that the giver does not know to whom he gives and the recipient does not know from whom he takes. This exemplifies doing a good deed for its own sake. One example was the Hall of Secrecy in the Temple, where the righteous would place their gift clandestinely and where poor people from noble families could come and secretly help themselves to aid. Close to this is dropping money in a charity box . . .
One step lower is where the giver knows to whom he gives, but the poor person does not know from whom he receives. Thus the great sages would go and secretly put money into poor people’s doorways…
A step lower is the case where the poor person knows from whom he is taking, but the giver does not known to whom he is giving. Thus the great sages would tie coins in their scarves, which they would fling over their shoulders, so that the poor could help themselves without suffering shame.
Lower than this, is where someone gives the poor person a gift before he asks.
Lower still is one who gives only after the poor person asks.
Lower than this is one who gives less than is fitting, but does so with a friendly countenance.
The lowest level is one who gives ungraciously. (Mattenot Ani’im 10:7-14)
This exquisitely calibrated ethic is shot through with psychological insight. What matters is not only how much you give, but also how you do so. Anonymity in the giving of aid is essential to dignity. The poor must not be embarrassed. The rich must not be allowed to feel superior. We give, not to take pride in our generosity, still less to emphasize the dependency of others, but because we belong to a covenant of human solidarity, and because that is what G-d wants us to do, honoring the trust through which he has temporarily lent us wealth in the first place.
Especially noteworthy is Maimonides’ insistence that giving somebody a job, or the means to start a business, is the highest charity of all. What is humiliating about poverty is dependence itself – the feeling of being beholden to others. One of the sharpest expressions of this is to be found in the Grace after Meals, when we say, “We beseech You, G-d our Lord, let us not be in need of the gifts of men or of their loans, but only of Your helping hand… so that we may not be put to shame nor humiliated for ever and ever.” The greatest act of tzedakah is one that allows the individual to become self-sufficient. The highest form of charity is one that enables the individual to dispense with charity. From the point of view of the giver, this is one of the least financially demanding forms of giving. It may not cost him anything at all. But from the point of view of the recipient, it is the most dignifying, because it removes the shame of receiving. Humanitarian relief is essential in the short-term, but in the long-run, job creation and economic policies that promote full employment are more important.
One detail of Jewish law is particularly noteworthy – even a person dependent on tzedakah must himself or herself give tzedakah. On the face of it, the rule is absurd. Why give X enough money so that he can give to Y? Giving to Y directly is more logical and efficient. What the rabbis understood, however, is that giving is an essential part of human dignity. The rabbinic insistence that the community provide the poor with enough money so that they themselves can give is a profound insight into the human condition.
Jewry has had many distinguished economists, from David Ricardo (whom Keynes called the greatest mind that ever addressed itself to economics), to John von Neumann (a physicist who, in his spare time, invented game theory), to Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. They have won an astonishing 38% of Nobel prizes in the field. Why should this have been so? Perhaps because Jews have long known that economics is one of the fundamental determinants of a society; that economic systems are not written into the structure of the universe, but are constructed by human beings and can be changed by human beings; and thus that poverty is not a fact of nature but can be alleviated, minimized, reduced. Economics is not a religious discipline. It is a secular art and science. Yet, deeply underlying the Jewish passion for economics is a religious imperative, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”